Bach Two Ways: the Bethlehem Christmas Concert with Handel and Bach and a WA Concert with Webern and Bach

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Georges Braque, Homage to J. S. Bach, winter 1911-12, oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art.

Georges Braque, Homage to J. S. Bach, winter 1911-12, oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art.

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem
Christmas Concert 2019
The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) – Messiah (Part One)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Magnificat in D BWV 243

Greg Funfgeld, Artistic Director and Conductor
Agnes Zsigovics, Soprano
Fiona Gillespie, Soprano
Daniel Taylor, Countertenor
Isaiah Bell, Tenor
David Newman, Bass-baritone
with the Bach Festival Orchestra

The Bethlehem Bach Choir and their many different spheres of activity are all about J. S. Bach, but other related composers, some of whom are internationally renowned and some still in high school, are also allowed to come in. Outside of this special community, even during the time between the end of his career and the Bach renaissance of the second quarter of the 19th century, Bach was never totally forgotten. His magnetism drew in Mozart, Beethoven and others, as well as post-renaissance composers like Brahms and Bruckner…on to the 20th century in Busoni and the composers of the Second Viennese School. A little fast driving enabled me to experience both an old tradition reaching back before Mendelssohn, as well as a newer one, in which Bach could be partnered with Anton Webern—this at one of Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima’s marvelous  WA Concerts.

 The Christmas season in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is more robust and energetic than in most other places. Advent and Christmas sit at the center of the belief and practice of the Moravian Protestants who founded the city on Christmas Eve, 1741. The ascendence of hope in their belief is symbolized by the Star of Bethlehem, which permeates much of the city, not only in December, and it is expressed in cheerful, even jolly, celebrations both in church, at home, and in public establishments. For many years now, the season has been set off by the Christmas Concerts of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, which are generally full to capacity with locals as well as Bach enthusiasts, some of whom come from far away for the event. For more on the Bach Choir and its history, click here and here.

Artistic Director Greg Funfgeld is expert at varying the programs, so that one never feels any hint of empty ritual. Some Christmas Concerts have been entirely rooted in the music of J. S. Bach, as in a traversal of the Christmas Oratorio, sensibly spread over two years, and others have mixed his music with other composers of a variety of nationalities and periods, including Respighi’s charming Lauda per la Natività del Signore. In 2019, J. S. Bach’s Magnificat in D shared the program with the Christmas section of Handel’s Messiah.

Neither of these masterpieces got in the other’s way, and the event, concluded by carols sung by Choir and audience, was as satisfying a way to celebrate as ever, but, in the juxtaposition of two elaborate choral works, I was never so keenly aware that Bach and Handel come from different artistic planets, although they were both born to Protestant families in the same year and fewer than 200 miles from one another. One notices this less if the Italianate chamber works they both wrote are combined in a program, but in this case, the gap between the two halves of the program was considerable, making the concert all the more fascinating. 

At this time of year, Messiah usually shows itself in performances of all three parts—Christmas, Easter, and a Hymn of Thanksgiving—which makes it impossible to schedule with other works in a program. I found the isolation of the part specifically related to the season a gratifying improvement over the diffuse impression of a full traversal. The Bach Choir will return to Part II on March 29th, concluding with the Hallelujah Chorus.

Maestro Funfgeld approached this more focused score with a strong sense of continuity and contrast between the movements, as well as a sense of the coherence of the librettist Charles Jennens’ selection of Biblical texts, which does indeed have a structure and an argument. In his performances of vocal music, Fungeld consistently give the text its due. The choir and above all the soloists sing with clear, understandable diction, inflecting it with an understanding of what it means. Even their facial expressions and body language reflect this. Musically, lively phrasing worked together with solid textures and balances to do full justice to the work’s monumentality as well as the immediacy of its emotive qualities. The soloists, Agnes Zsigovics, soprano, Daniel Taylor, countertenor, Isaiah Bell, tenor, and David Newman, bass-baritone, were all in top form, singing with style and serious commitment to the religious and cultural import of the work. Mr. Bell began to sing with the choir at a fairly young age, and I have enjoyed his singing over a few years now. This performance showed his voice achieving a new level of integration, depth, and body. He also sang with particular confidence, introducing some colorful ornamentation. The long, legato lines of Handel’s writing shone out in Zsigovics’ crystalline voice and proved a perfect medium for the rich and varied beauties of Taylor’s. David Newman also flourished in Handelian legato. Whatever the differences of style and content exist between the two composers, Handel proved excellent vocal preparation for Bach.

Handel was rooted in opera, especially Italian, in which he was immersed during his formative years in Florence (1706-1710). When he moved to Rome, where opera was banned, he adapted the style he had developed to church music. He returned to Germany at the age of twenty-five, soon to go on definitively to London with his employer, Prince George, Elector of Hannover, who became King George I of England. Italian opera became Handel’s métier in London, until a change of taste among the fashion-ridden London public led him back to religion, in the form of oratorio, of which Messiah is an example. J. S. Bach never visited Italy and never wrote an opera, although he might well have done so, if his employment had called for it. His training and experience combined church and court, and he was accustomed to draw on secular elements like dance rhythms and operatic expression to provide a full musical diet for the congregations at Leipzig. Their musical and spiritual formations could not have been more different, although their forms of expression overlapped, especially in secular music.

Bach’s Magnificat, although long established as a Christmas piece, was most likely first composed—in E Flat—for a Vespers performance on July 2, 1741, hardly over a month after his arrival in Leipzig. It was his first big display piece as a newcomer to the musical life of the city. Extremely busy with compositions and performances, Bach brought it back for the Christmas season, with four interpolations relevant to the holiday. In spite of the work’s lingering association with Christmas, these extra movements, two of which are in German, are rarely included. Their tone is generally light and festive, enhancing the celebratory mood of the holiday. Bach revived the Magnificat yet again in 1733, possibly for another Vespers performance, transposing it into the key of D Major, and making some changes in orchestration. This version lacks the interpolations and remains the version most frequently performed today, and this was what we heard at the Christmas Concert.

The rich array of sources and references to past styles and motifs of Bach’s Magnificat, all digested with powerful intellect, almost makes Messiah seem simple-minded. Bach’s aim was to entertain and stimulate a congregation that was to some degree familiar with Bach’s references. With twelve brief movements unfolding in around a half hour, its variety is almost kaleidoscopic  and its effect almost dense in comparison with well-mannered Handel’s creation. While Handel ingratiated himself to his audience while moving them, according to his own statement aware of a higher purpose, Bach introduced himself to his Leipzigers with brilliance and learning.

As in Messiah, the musicians and singers performed with commitment, focus, and their love for the music shone through. Soprano Fiona Gillespie joined Ms. Zsigovics and Mr. Taylor for the Trio “Suscepit,” an elegant contribution to the work of these supremely gifted and intelligent artists. 

The Pursuit of Perfection
WA Concert Series presents
The Pursuit of Perfection
The music of Anton Webern and J.S. Bach
Katie Hyun, Violin
Fred Sherry, Cello
Charles Neidich, Clarinet, Basset Horn
Ayako Oshima, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Soprano

Sunday, December 8th, 2019
8pm
Tenri Cultural Institute
43a W 13th St, New York, NY 10011

Anton Webern, 6 Lieder nach Gedichten von Georg Trakl, op. 14 (published 1924)

1. Die Sonne (1921)
2. Abendland I (1919)
3. Abendland II (1919
4. Abendland III (1917)
5. Nachts (1919)
6. Gesang einer gefangenen Amsel (1919)
    Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Soprano
    Katie Hyun, Violin
    Fred Sherry, Cello
    Charles Neidich, Clarinet
    Ayako Oshima, Bass Clarinet

J.S. Bach, Selections from the Art of the Fugue (arranged by Charles Neidich)
Contrapuncti I, IV, II, VII, IX
    Katie Hyun, Violin
    Fred Sherry, Cello
    Ayako Oshima, Clarinet
    Charles Neidich, Basset Horn

Anton Webern, 5 Canons, op. 16 (1923-24, published 1928)
1. Christus factus est pro nobis
2. Dormi Jesu, mater ridet
3. Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis
4. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor
5. Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine
    Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Soprano
    Charles Neidich, Clarinet
    Ayako Oshima, Bass Clarinet

J. S. Bach, Selections from the Art of the Fugue (arranged by Charles Neidich)
Contrapuncti III, V, XI, XVIII
    Katie Hyun, Violin
    Fred Sherry, Cello
    Ayako Oshima, Clarinet
    Charles Neidich, Basset Horn

The WA Concerts, held at the Tenri Center in Greenwich Village, are to my mind the most rewarding musical series in New York City. The programs are planned in advance, as with others, but each concert feels like an impromptu exploration of uncharted territory, even if some of the works one hears are familiar. The playing is as personal and interactive as Hausmusik, but played by consummate professionals in a public space, albeit an intimate one. Charles Neidich has an intuitive sense in mustering the classical, the modern of the early and mid 20th century, and the contemporary. He and his wife, Ayako Oshima, both clarinetists, play specially-built instruments suitable to function as period instruments for music of the eighteenth century, as well as for 19th century and modern repertory. For this concert, their clarinets, bass clarinets, and basset horn served brilliantly to bring together Bach-inspired vocal works by Anton Webern as well as Contrapuncti from the Art of Fugue.

Webern shared the reverence for Bach of his teacher, Arnold Schönberg, but he was also linked to him by his profound religious belief as a Roman Catholic, and this appears overtly in the Latin ecclesiastical verses he set in his Five Canons, Op. 16. The title of these five brief songs proclaims their contrapuntal nature, but the six settings of poems by Georg Trakl are fundamentally contrapuntal as well, and richly so. Both collections reflect Bach’s art in Die Kunst der Fuge, especially as expressed in the brief, concentrated Contrapuncti programmed together with them. Webern scored Op. 14 for soprano, violin, cello, clarinet, and bass clarinet, and Op. 16, for soprano, clarinet and bass clarinet—combinations well suited to bringing out the polyphonic lines of the instruments in relation to the vocal lines. As in the Canons, he often allows the soprano to lead, followed by entrances of the instruments, treating the voice both as an instrument and as an expressive human voice, speaking words, and words full of meaning at that. Remembering Bach’s Magnificat, one can recall solo movements that similarly resonate with Webern’s technique.

In setting the atmospheric poems of Trakl, Webern placed himself in a romantic-expressionistic mode, using the conrpuntal responses of the instruments as emotive “footnotes” to Trakl’s moody, often morbid responses to nature, night and day, and the seasons. In the Canons, he evokes not only Bach’s religious vocal settings, recalling once again the Magnificat, but instrumental treatments of hymns and chants, like Clavierübung III and the chorale preludes. Mr. Neidich, by adopting an instrumentation close to Webern’s in Op. 14—violin, cello, clarinet, and basset horn—embodied the kinship of the two composers, as well as finding a simple solution to setting Bach’s score. With those four instruments there is no need for arrangement: the musicians simply play what Bach wrote in the appropriate clef.

Lucy Fitz Gibbon, who has sung in the WA Concerts in the past, is well on her way to being the Lucy Shelton of her generation. She not only masters the difficulties of the musical writing and understands the texts and expresses their meaning, she has great fun conquering the challenge and projected the essence of the music. Few singers are nearly as comfortable in this demanding repertory, which often gives the singer less than a minute to make a complete statement. The instrumentalists are all masters, bringing together a younger generation in Katie Hyun, Fred Sherry, who has been an integral part of contemporary music, working closely with composers since the early 1970s, and, in Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima, a middle generation. Mr. Neidich has cultivated a broad but concentrated range of interests, focused on the historical performance of 18th and 19th century music together with contemporary works for many years now, and is both an individualistic explorer and a leader in the field. Their combined efforts not only supported the careful  balances demanded by counterpoint, but reveled in musical expression, occasionally jumping into a jazzy mode that seems entirely natural in Bach.

There isn’t much better in the musical world than these two entirely different endeavors, and I consider myself lucky in being able to experience both in one day.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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